Over the past several years I have noticed something interesting. Not only am I buying more wines from women winemakers than I was, but some of those women would count firmly among my very favourite producers. I’ve tried to work out why this is, because I can categorically say that it’s nothing to do with the style of the wines. I don’t go for all that “feminine wines” crap, and in any event, some of those wines are pretty damned assertive.
Women have been making wine forever, of course, but wine has, until relatively recently, been very much the domain of the male ego. There are some great partnerships in wine but not every one of those partnerships has been the kind you see at places like Gut Oggau in Burgenland, a partnership of true equals. The traditional role for the female half of a wine partnership in a male-dominated profession has been sitting at the kitchen table, doing the paperwork, or occasionally making lunch when your husband’s (sic) male importer comes to visit. Or, in some cases I know, going out to work when lean harvests mean just too little money is coming in. In many wine regions, the role of the wife is also one of the mother as well, with child care near the top of the job list
Occasionally an untimely death throws the wife, or daughter, into making the wine. There are plenty of sad stories of winemakers passing away during harvest, giving other family members no choice but to subdue their grief and forge ahead. But it is probably only in the last twenty years that there has been a real groundswell of women winemakers starting out alone, from scratch. It is especially true that many of them are very young, new blood joining the likes of pioneers like Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, Birgit Braunstein or Heidi Schröck. (As an aside, have you noticed how many women winemakers succeed in Austria, especially Burgenland?).
There have been books and articles aplenty in recent years on the phenomenon of “women in wine”. It has become an even bigger topic of late, with stories of misogyny and worse coming to light, usually the result of male dominated power structures. The latest work on women in wine has been written by a Norwegian almost turned Swede, Camilla Gjerde.
Born in Norway, Camilla was awarded a PhD in Political Science from Oslo University and worked as a civil servant, but has lived in Sweden for the past twenty years, recently moving from Stockholm to Malmö. Her own life- and career-changing moment came when she tasted Arianna Occhipinti’s “Il Frappato” in 2008. She became completely hooked on natural wine. This led her to a WSET Diploma and a change of direction into wine writing. Her book, many years in the planning, chooses for its title a quotation from one of the women it profiles – We Don’t Want Any Crap in Our Wine and is subtitled The Women Behind the Bottle.
Within its two-hundred plus pages it profiles nine women from seven estates who have between them not only evolved a great reputation as wine producers individually, but who have also done so much to change perceptions of what women can achieve in wine. All of them are uncompromising individuals, and they have had to be. Of course, any difficulties they have faced have not all been down to the male of the species. Many are down to weather. Nature’s way of throwing the unexpected your way at the worst possible time is always going to be an issue when you don’t want any crap in your wine.
Of the seven estates profiled, I know the wines of all but one of them (Fonterenza in Montalcino). A couple of producers I know fairly well, I mean personally as well as their wines. Others I’ve met once or twice, either at wine fairs and or on visits. Others, I just know their wines and have read about.
Those who I do know do seem to have some appealing character traits which help warm me to the wines. I’ve said before that if I like the winemaker and respect their working methods, that is a major step towards my appreciation of their wines. You can learn a lot about a person which ultimately enables you to trust them and their wines.
All of the women profiled have a very steely determination to make wine, and to make it on their own terms. This has led to great difficulties for all of them to greater or lesser degrees. And going back to the child rearing aspect of their lives, at least three of them have children to look after on top of the hard physical work and long hours of the vigneronne.
Of those I know in the book, and indeed other women winemakers of my acquaintance, there’s definitely a warmth and openness, even if one or two are quite shy. In the world of the male winemaker, there can often be a certain, well, if not exactly macho stance, certainly an ego present. This is even evident with some of the men making natural wines.
So, who do we get to read about?
Elena Pantaleoni makes wine at La Stoppa, in Emilia-Romagna, as well as in Chile now, as well. Her wines were always among my purchases in the early days of Les Caves de Pyrene, her UK importer. Francesca and Margherita Padovani are twins who share responsibility for the Fonterenza estate at Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino). Jutta Ambrositsch is the ex-graphic designer who ploughs her own furrow on the hillside vineyards of Vienna. For me personally, her wines are sensationally exciting.
Alice Bouvot (Domaine L’Octavin) is, whether she likes it or not, the Queen of Arbois, making some of the most radical, challenging, yet satisfying and in some ways “perfect” wines in the Jura Region. “Rennersistas” Stefanie and Susanne (recently joined by their brother, Georg) took over running a long-established family winery in 2015/16 and, as the author quotes, had to tell their father to “back off, we have a plan”.
Catherine Hannoun (Domaine de la Loue) has gone it alone at Port-Lesney, the Jura’s northern frontier. She used to be a film producer and has brought knowledge from that métier to bear fruit (in both senses) as a winemaker. Catherine has in some ways faced the greatest wine-related problems of all the featured women here, but she makes truly wonderful wines simply because she makes them on her own terms. I wish they were less difficult to source, and she is one winemaker I shall be even more reticent to visit now I know how little time she has to waste.
Arianna Occhipinti is also a veritable star, who decided to go it alone at the age of only twenty-one, in one of the places you’d probably least expect to be a hospitable environment for a young woman to make wine, Sicily. Her advantage was, perhaps, having a famous (well, to me) uncle who is part of the COS setup. COS, like Arianna, close to the south-eastern town of Vittoria, was one of the first natural wine producers I got to know.
I wondered why Camilla had wanted to set out to write this particular book. As she says in her Preface, only about 14% of all winemakers are women, and she wanted to give them a voice. The voice she gives them is not quite the one you might expect in a wine book. Let me explain. As a political scientist, Camilla is most interested in the people and what makes them tick. Of course, the wines they make are ever present, but aside from broad descriptions you won’t find too many technical details about how the wines are made, nor a string of tasting notes. What you will find filling the pages are the philosophies of these winemakers, coming from their own mouths. They are remarkably similar.
It would be a crass cliché to draw gender-related conclusions from the fact that all of these women are wholly in tune with nature, and their own terroir (ecosystem). This is not purely a feminine trait. Neither is the passion these women have exclusive to the female sex. Plenty of blokes (Jeff Coutelou, André and Yann Durrmann, Pierre Overnoy, and a hundred others) understand how nature works and how dead soils lead pretty swiftly to dead wines. Yet throughout the pages of this book, the winemakers say pretty much the same things, within the context of their own story and circumstances. And it is their story which comes through clearly…it is what makes the book so interesting.
Of course, passion so often leads to experimentation. All of them are inquisitive. Such people are always going to be at the periphery of their profession, quietly pushing boundaries, so that the experimental might one day become the mainstream. If it is true that classical modern winemaking, the type taught by scientists in universities and regional wine schools, and which became entrenched by the likes of Robert Parker’s wine criticism in the 1980s, and if it is true that the revolution in the application of synthetic agri-chemicals in the years post-WW2, were both largely driven by men, men who believed they could conquer nature, then it is now true today that natural wine is something which is being driven by women as well.
This doesn’t mean that the world of natural wine is especially egalitarian. I know plenty of natural winemakers who still have, shall we call it, a “traditional view” of a woman’s place. Heaven-help these ladies when their wines come in front of conservative, cliquey, male-dominated appellation tasting panels. It’s not only those who go in for a certain kind of (c)rude wine label whose views may not conform to what we should expect in the modern world.
However, plenty of men are supportive as has been the case for some of the women in this book. That said, what does come through is that every one of the winemakers here has had to develop the confidence to trust their knowledge and instinct, something their male counterparts have often approached with fewer worries. There’s a funny story in one chapter where a male colleague told one winemaker that she was macerating a wine on skins for far too long. Her reaction, to give it an even longer period on skins than she had done in previous years!
The book is a labour of love, self-published and greatly enhanced by the lovely photographs of Cecilia Magnusson. Cecilia’s bio says that her passion is taking photos which capture the moment, and she genuinely does that here. These pictures were taken as the pair cycled to and from the wineries in a trip which took them from Arbois to Sicily (well, a few other modes of transport may have been involved as well, as revealed in the preface, as Camilla obviously didn’t manage the whole journey on her fold-up Brompton commuter bike).
The photos do play a major part not only in conveying the passion of the winemakers but also that of the author. It’s a warm and personal account. It’s not a book which will end up on a WSET syllabus, but it is one which will appeal to lovers of natural wines, and who want to read the stories of these women and to discover what makes them need to make wine.
Do I have any criticisms? Well naturally I’d have loved to go on reading, and I can think of a whole host of women winemakers who would have been a good fit here (certainly Julie Balagny in Beaujolais and perhaps Catherine Riss in Alsace). Of course I’m not the one who had to put in the leg work, so as complaints go, it’s a positive that I wanted more. There’s a helpful list of more women natural winemakers towards the back of the book.
I would say, as a writer myself and well aware of my own limitations, that as with many self-published books, in places it does read as if the overview of a professional editor might have helped eliminate the odd clunky sentence or repetition, but I would stress that I only make these comments to show that the book isn’t perfect. Such instances are very rare, but interestingly perhaps come closer to the beginning than the end. But take note – I don’t think, for one minute, that such very minor points would diminish anyone’s enjoyment, nor do they diminish Camilla’s significant achievement in researching, writing and publishing this book.
We Don’t Want Any Crap in Our Wine is self-published under the Now What Publishing imprint (2021), written by Camilla Gjerde with photographs by Cecilia Magnusson. It’s a good, solid hardback. It is available from camillagjerde.com (£26 for UK plus shipping, but posting worldwide). I know that Camilla has signing sessions planned back home.
Ultimately, it’s a feel-good book with an emphasis on passion and success, but not before the book’s subjects have faced very steep learning curves and a host of obstacles, which in the case of some of the women featured, still persist. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I know many of my friends in wine will too. Go out and buy it if you feel remotely interested. There is no question that the women within are inspiring, and for me, this does come through clearly in the text. Just don’t expect a textbook.